Boulainvilliers, Henri, Comte de (1658–1722)

views updated


The historian, philosopher, astrologer, and savant Henri, Comte de Boulainvilliers, or Henry, Comte de Bou-lainviller, as he preferred to spell his name, was born at Saint-Saire, Normandy. From 1669 to 1674 he was educated at the Oratorian school at the College of Juilly, where Richard Simon taught rhetoric and philosophy. Boulainvilliers took up military service, as befitted a member of an old aristocratic family, proud of his lineage. After leaving the army, he developed an interest in history, first studying his own family tree and then the social and political institutions of the Middle Ages. He approved of feudalism, which he envisaged as a kind of federal republic governed by distant and independent aristocratic families, whom he considered to be the inheritors of the Franks who had conquered the Gauls. He deplored the increase in the power of the central authoritythe kingand in the liberties of the people as encroachments on the rights of the nobles. He favored a patriarchal society. Many of his reforms, submitted to the regent, recommended the fostering of trade, proportional taxation, the suppression of tax collectors, and the calling of the États Généraux. The count had access to Court circles; he was connected with d'Argenson, president of the council of finance, to whom it is thought he passed on a number of clandestine philosophical tracts. He also frequented the home of the maréchal, duc de Noailles, where he met César Dumarsais, a disciple of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, future author of articles for the Encyclopédie and probable author of La religion chrétienne analysée and Examen de la religion ; Nicolas Fréret, a devotee of Pierre Bayle; and Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, the secrétaire perpétuel of the Académie Française.

For a time Boulainvilliers was the center of much intellectual activity, and in the history of free thought his coterie antedates by fifty years the better-known côterie holbachique. Voltaire in his Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (1767) has given us an insight into this milieu, which certainly disseminated a surprisingly large number of clandestine manuscripts and seems to have provided the only organized center for the compiling, copying, and distribution of philosophical tracts. Boulainvilliers is best known as the probable author of parts of the Essai de métaphysique, which was published in 1731 under the title Réfutation des erreurs de Benoît de Spinoza. He became interested in Benedict de Spinoza through reading the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which he annotated copiously, and also the Ethics, which he read in 1704. The first part, or Vie de Spinoza, of the Essai de métaphysique has been attributed to J. M. Lucas. The second part, or Esprit de Spinoza, has been attributed by I. O. Wade and others to Boulainvilliers. Both parts are commonly coupled together in the manuscripts and in the editions under the title La vie et l'esprit de Spinoza. Boulainvilliers correctly presents Spinoza's doctrine that God and the universality of things are one and the same, then proceeds to argue that Spinoza's "attributes" are in fact "modes"; that is, "modes" of something he terms existence.

In this work, he has evolved an original philosophy. Starting from the Cartesian principle that he knows himself to be a thinking being, he infers that other beings exist, some endowed with thought, others only with feeling, and others without feeling or thought. All beings, whether living or nonliving, thinking, feeling, or merely extended, have one property in common: existence. From such premises, he proceeds to a universal Idea or Being more all-embracing than matter. He stresses the degrees of being, and claims that sensations are the source of all experience. He concludes by asserting that at death the body returns to universal matter while the soul remains as an idea in the infinite mind and is, therefore, capable of being restored to the body. It is clear that Boulainvilliers's exposition of Spinoza is curiously based on the Cartesian assertions and incorporates ideas borrowed from John Locke.

He strove to harmonize the notion of a single substance with a sensationalist psychology and a naturalistic ethics. He believed in a "chain of being," in the capacity of animals to think, and in evidence (as opposed to judgment) as the only criterion of truth; he also helped to discredit Christian revelation. In an Abrégé d'histoire ancienne he expressed his belief in the primacy of natural laws, denying the possibility of miracles. These points were later taken up by Denis Diderot in the article "Certitude" of the Encyclopédie.

De Tribus Impostoribus

Figuring as part of the Essai de métaphysique, sometimes titled L'esprit de Spinoza, is to be found a treatise commonly known as the Traité des trois imposteurs, under which title it was published in 1719 (2nd ed., 1721; numerous others throughout the century). Since printed copies were commonly impounded and consequently hard to find, manuscript copies continued to circulate both before and after publication. Polemic and concise, it provided freethinkers with valuable ammunition. Its aggressive title helped to ensure its success and may have been chosen by the Dutch printers as the last and profitable stage of an elaborate hoax. It is an allusion to a lost treatise, De Tribus Impostoribus (1230), supposedly written by Frederick II for the edification of his friend Othon. Interest in this Latin work, evidenced in Theophrastus Redivivus (1659), had been revived at the close of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth.

The author of the Traité des trois imposteurs, believed by Voltaire to be Boulainvilliers, launched a virulent attack on the prophets and apostles; he expressed his disbelief in heaven or hell, rewards or punishments, his faith in natural law as enshrined in the hearts of men, and in the soul as the expression of the principle of life. The system of religion is, according to him, the work of false legislators, among whom are Moses, Christ, and Muammad. Moses was nothing more than a magician and a charlatan; Christ, who may be likened to Genghis Khan, was a casuist in his discussions with the Philistines and in claiming to be the son of a god; his religion owes much to Greek mythology and his ethics compare unfavorably with those of Epictetus and Epicurus. Muammad differs from the other two impostors in having recourse to violence in the establishment of his kingdom. Voltaire, among others, seized on these points to bolster his polemics against the church. He, too, saw the advantage of an oblique attack on the church by an onslaught against Islamic fanaticism, coupled with the claim that all religions are equal. The treatise marks an early, if crude, attempt to consider religion from the comparative standpoint.

Boulainvilliers is best remembered as a confirmed "spinoziste," and his views on the subject of nature and matter, the relationship of matter and thought, and the origin and nature of government won him a place as a forerunner of the philosophes.

See also Clandestine Philosophical Literature in France; Spinozism.


works by boulainvilliers

État de la France, etc., avec des mémoires historiques sur l'ancien gouvernement de cette monarchie jusqu' à Hugues Capet . 3 vols. London: T. Wood and S. Palmer; W. Roberts, 1727.

Histoire de l'ancien gouvernement de la France, avec 14 lettres historiques sur les parlements ou états généraux. 3 vols. The Hague and Amsterdam: Aux dépends de la compagnie, 1727.

Mémoires présentés au duc d'Orléans, régent de France, contenant les moyens de rendre ce royaume très puissant et d'augmenter considérablement les revenus du roi et du peuple. 2 vols. The Hague, 1727.

La vie de Mahomed. London: Humbert, 1730. Unfinished.

Essai de métaphysique dans les principes de Spinoza. Brussels, 1731. Published under the title Réfutation des erreurs de Benoît de Spinosa, par M. de Fenelon, par le P. Lami et par M. le Comte de Boullainvilliers, avec La vie de Spinosa écrite par M. Jean Colerus.

Histoire des Arabes. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Humbert, 1731.

Mémoire pour la construction d'un nobiliaire général and Mémoire sur la noblesse (1753). Both unpublished; Mss. at Angoulême.

works on boulainvilliers

Buranelli, V. "The Historical and Political Thought of Boulainvilliers." Journal of the History of Ideas 18 (4) (1957).

Dosher, Harry R. "Henri, Comte de Boulainvilliers, Historian of the French Aristocracy, 16581722." MA thesis. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1960.

Gargallo di Castel Lentini, Gioacchino. Boulainvilliers e la storiografia dell'Illuminismo francese. Giannini-Naples, 1954.

Levy, Neil. "History as Struggle: Foucault's Genealogy of Genealogy." History of the Human Sciences 11 (4) (1998): 159170.

Simon, R. Henry de Boulainviller, historien, politique, philosophe, astrologue. Paris, 1939.

Spink, J. S. French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire. London: Athlone Press, 1960.

Torrey, N. L. "Boulainvilliers: The Man and the Mask." Travaux sur Voltaire et le XVIIIe siècle 1 (1955): 159173.

Wade, I. O. The Clandestine Organization and Diffusion of Philosophic Ideas in France from 1700 to 1750. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1938.

Robert Niklaus (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

About this article

Boulainvilliers, Henri, Comte de (1658–1722)

Updated About content Print Article